The “night everything went crazy,” the night Zach Wahls’ life went viral, he remembers thinking back to eighth grade when his class was assigned to watch the 2004 Republican National Convention and he was struck by remarks by then Sen. Rick Santorum.“I remember listening to him talk about having gay parents and the threat of gay marriage,” says Wahls, 21. “The next day in class, we were asked what we thought of what we saw. I immediately said he was saying all these crazy things about gay parents. The teacher said, ‘How do you know it was crazy?’ ”
Wahls fell silent. In that moment it was clear to him there was nobody like him in the room, no one else to speak up.
He was raised by two women. His biological mother, Terry, “tall mom,” conceived Zach in 1991 through artificial insemination. He shares the same anonymous donor with his younger sister, Zebby, born in 1994. Terry, an internal medicine physician, met her partner, Jackie Reger, “short mom,” in 1995 at a Unitarian Universalist coffee house. The two wed in 2009 when Iowa realized full marriage equality.
Two years later, the Iowa House Judiciary Committee held a public hearing on a proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage in the state. Wahls, then 19 and an engineering student at the University of Iowa, thought back to eighth grade. He says he knew if someone out there with gay parents had stood up to Santorum, it would have given him the courage back then to say something.
“I knew that I had an obligation to a younger me to take advantage of this opportunity,” recalls Wahls, who will speak at 8 p.m. Wednesday at the University of Idaho Student Union Building Ballroom.
In his testimony, he introduced himself as a sixth-generation Iowan whose family isn’t so different from any other. They go to church, eat dinner and go on vacations. They have fights and struggle at times — like when his mom, Terry, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Not once in his life has he ever been confronted by an individual who realized independently that he was raised by a gay couple.
“And you know why?” he asked. “Because the sexual orientation of my parents has had zero impact on the content of my character.”
A family is held together by commitment, he said. Same-sex parents are not second-class citizens.
Although his words failed to stop the House from approving the ban, a video of his testimony has accumulated more than 18 million hits on YouTube, been broadcast on CNN, MSNBC, and “Good Morning America” and landed him on a variety of TV talk shows.
Wahls is a part-time college student now and spends the rest of his time speaking about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights around the country. A former Eagle Scout, he’s part of the national group Scouts for Equality, which is pushing the Boy Scouts of America to end their ban on gay youth and parents. The organization is set to make a decision May 23.
“There’s a lot of work to do. We’re going to get it done,” says Wahls, who wrote a book, “My Two Moms,” about his life.
Wherever he goes, he bumps into common misconceptions — he had no male role models, he’s gay, and that he lacked a father figure, “or quote-unquote masculine values, whatever that means. Of course, none of that is true,” he says.
He’s looking forward to coming to Idaho, one of four states in the union he has yet to visit.
“I think whenever you have the opportunity to have a conversation outside the traditional stronghold for LGBT rights, it’s a conversation I look forward to having,” he says.
“The reality is that having lesbian parents is different from having straight parents but there is much more alike than there is different. … There are a lot of different ways in which we can raise a family. The things that are required universally for child rearing are love, commitment and patience. If you have those things, I think it’s going to be all right.”
if you go
WHO: Zach Wahls
WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesday, April 24
WHERE: University of Idaho Student Union Building Ballroom